Whether it’s a guest spot in The Sopranos, part of an ensemble on The L Word or Life or a starring role in Fairly Legal, Sarah Shahi always makes a memorable impression. Now playing agent Sameen Shaw in CBS’ Person of Interest, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Miss Fort Worth pageant winner adds a behind-the-scenes credit to her eclectic resumé with Road to Paloma (in limited release this weekend), serving as executive producer of the independent drama in which she plays the sister of writer-director-star Jason Momoa. She talks candidly about all of it in a conversation about everything from blowjobs to pickup lines to Robert Altman. Yup, we covered a lot.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to have something more than looks. You’re only going to stay cute for so long.”
How did you get involved with Road to Paloma?
I was in this movie called Bullet to the Head with Jason and he came to me and asked me. I wanted to play the lead character, not his sister. I tried to convince him but that went nowhere. We made her more integral to the story and I helped him get the funding to make the movie. I was in Canada filming Fairly Legal when all this was happening so a lot of it was phone calls, emails, Skype. Once my show wrapped I was able to come on set and have more of a physically active role.
Was that the first time you took on that producer role? How was that?
It was, and I really liked it. I don’t really have any interest in directing or writing anything, but producing was something I enjoyed, putting people together and making sure everything was lined up in the right way and securing this location or that space. The goal is to produce more of the things that I’m in.
What do you like about your role in Person of Interest?
One of the big reasons I took this job was because all the physicality involved. I’ve never done anything that was physical before and I’ve never really done stunts before so I love that part. I also enjoy how dark Shaw is. I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface of her issues and her problems and why she is the way she is. So I look forward to having some fun with that.
Did you have to step up your fitness regimen for it?
Yes and no. I definitely have to keep myself looking a certain way for the role so I can’t pound the spaghetti and Limoncello quite yet. I have a bit of background in martial arts, I take boxing classes and anything that my character would do, I try to go out and do that myself. She rides bikes, so I decided to get my motorcycle license.
As hard as he tried, Jim couldn’t stop thinking about that scene in Old School.
Speaking of things you’ve learned for roles, did you really take a blowjob class for Old School?
Yeah, I did. Every girl should take a blowjob class. Because that’s not a skill you just know how to do. You’ve got to practice. Lou Paget, who had a show on HBO called Real Sex, taught it. We got to pick our own dildos, and I chose a nice one. My husband is very happy I took that class.
Looking back on other memorable experiences, what stands out about The Sopranos and The L Word?
To work with James Gandolfini, I only did one episode, but I feel like there was a part of him that I kept after that one episode and I think he might have done the same with me. It was very easy to work with one another. We had a lot of chemistry. I still think about him to this day. The L Word, I was a part of a big cultural movement but at the time that I was doing it, I wasn’t aware of how impactful the show was. That show actually changed a lot of people’s lives.
Since it’s summer, got a favorite summertime drink?
I take tequila and juice a watermelon and pour in the juice, a little bit of lime and jalapeno juice and ice cubes. Because of the jalapenos and the watermelon and the lime, it’s almost like a little salad—a fruit salad with a bit of tequila in it.
What’s a good icebreaker for guys to say to girls on the beach?
I don’t know but I can tell you what my husband [Steve Howey, Shameless] said to me one of the first times we went out. We met almost 12 years ago on Reba. I was a guest star. He took my face in his hands and he said, “As long as I have a face, you have a place to sit.” He made me laugh so hard. I was smitten.
Do you think humor is the most attractive quality in a person?
I think so. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have something more than looks. You’re only going to stay cute for so long. Charm and being able to make a girl laugh is more important than anything.
You were in beauty pageants and were an NFL cheerleader. What did you get out of those experiences?
Well, the world of pageants and cheerleading, they’re actually crazy similar. They both make Hollywood look like baby’s foreplay. There’s a lot of backstabbing and manipulation, and it can be very cliquey. In Hollywood I feel like there’s a piece of the pie for everyone. As [long as] you stay true to who you are and you don’t try to change or turn into what you think is the flavor of the moment, it’s going to happen when it’s meant to happen, and you just have to accept that. But performing in front of 80,000 people helped me learn a sense of discipline. When I was a cheerleader, we had rehearsal every night for six hours. And I was a full-time college student, so I had to juggle that. So it was definitely challenging.
You met director Robert Altman when you were a cheerleader and he was making Dr. T and the Women. Was that your big break?
Robert Altman used our rehearsal facilities, the Dallas Cowboy Ranch, as his set for about two weeks and threw the cheerleaders in as background. And I had no idea who Robert Altman was. But he took a great big liking to me. We had lunch with each other every day and we would just talk for hours on set. We talked about everything but the business. Toward the end he asked me what is it that I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be an actress. He said, “I think you have what it takes. I’m going to give you my office number, my cell, and you call me when you move out there. I want to help you.” That was October ’99 and a few months later I packed up my truck and I headed out west. And I never looked back.